Bonny Lee Bakley’s death — The accusations behind her unsolved murder

Bonny Lee Bakley

In 2000, Bonny Lee Bakley finally achieved her dream of marrying a celebrity. Lee wed renowned actor Robert Blake – but the marriage didn’t last as long as she’d hoped. In May 2001, after the couple enjoyed a meal at Vitello’s Restaurant in Studio City, Bonny Lee Bakley was shot dead inside Robert’s 1991 Dodge Stealth. 

Blake had allegedly returned to the restaurant to collect his registered gun when the shooting happened. He found Bonny slumped on her seat and called emergency services, but it was too late. Authorities later found the murder weapon, a 9mm Walther P-38 commonly associated with the Nazis, in a dumpster close to Blake’s car. 

Key Takeaways

  • Bonny’s husband, Robert Blake, said he didn’t witness her murder, but he was nearby. 
  • Prosecutors charged Blake with murder and solicitation to commit murder, but a jury acquitted him of the charges.
  • Bakley’s murder remains unsolved, though some allege that Bonny’s criminal past caught up with her. 
  • Bonny’s daughter, Lenore, didn’t feel ready to discuss the murder when she reunited with her dad Robert Blake after eighteen years. 

Investigators initially treated Robert Blake as a witness but later arrested him

A witness to the murder told People that Robert Blake paced up and down the street and vomited as police processed the scene. “The cops were treating him with kid gloves,” the witness said. “An officer had his arm around him, just consoling him.”

Robert’s said he didn’t witness the shooting as he’d returned to the restaurant to collect his weapon, which he reportedly carried because Bonny feared for her safety. However, Joseph Restive, the co-owner of Vitello’s, said he saw Robert return once: to ask for help after the shooting. 

“He ran in here saying something had happened,” Restivo told People. “He was saying she had been mugged or got shot and to call 911.” Blake reportedly asked for water, drank it, and left.

Police questioned Blake and searched his house, but they didn’t declare him an official suspect – they treated him as a witness. Nevertheless, they tested him for gunpowder residue to determine whether he’d fired a gun recently. 

“I assumed he passed it, otherwise he would be in custody right now,” his lawyer, Harland Braun, told People. “I know as sure as I am sitting here that it is negative.”

Investigators refused to reveal whether they shared Braun’s conviction that Robert wasn’t a suspect. However, eleven months after the killing, they arrested Blake, charging him with murder and solicitation to commit murder. 

Robert Blake was acquitted of Bonny’s murder but found liable in civil court

Robert Blake told police that he carried a gun because he feared for his wife’s safety. He reported that he’d spotted a man in a black truck watch the house for two months. Blake had tried to apprehend the stranger, but he got away. 

Peter Carlyon, Bonny’s half-brother, told People that Bakley only feared one person: Robert Blake. “She called my mom a week ago and said if anything happens, you’ll know he [Blake] did it,” Carlyon said. “We had warned her to get out.”

Blake’s attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, told A&E True Crime that he was certain about Robert’s innocence. He described Robert as credible and genuine but barred him from testifying in criminal court. 

Robert Blake reacts after being found not guilty of murdering Bonny Lee Bakley at the Van Nuys Courthouse March 16, 2005 | Photo by Nick Ut-Pool/Getty Images

The prosecution got two stuntmen to testify that Robert attempted to hire them to kill Bonny. Robert’s attorneys alleged that the stuntmen lacked credibility, citing their histories of heavy drug use. 

Crucially, the prosecution failed to link the gun to Blake or any other person. The gunshot residue found on Blake didn’t support the allegation that he fired the murder weapon. A defense expert testified that investigators would have recovered nearly 100 particles if Blake had fired the gun. 

Gerald said that the substance on Blake’s hands resembled gun residue but didn’t constitute gun residue. Prosecutors ‘couldn’t put the gun in his [Blake’s] hand,’ the jury foreman told reporters. 

The jury unanimously acquitted Robert of the murder charge. One juror, however, remained convinced that Robert solicited for murder but couldn’t swing the jury to convict. 

Gerald said that a combination of attorney incompetence, erroneous rulings, juror irregularities, and Robert’s capitulation on the stand led to defeat in civil court. An appeals court cut the initial award of $30 million in half. 

Robert and Bakley’s estate eventually settled the wrongful death suit out of court. 

Some claim that Bonny’s criminal past led to her murder

“I didn’t know her well enough to know her,” Blake told Piers Morgan on CNN. It explains why he hired a private investigator to learn more about his wife. 

“She was not Mother Teresa,” Peter described Bonny, a New Jersey native from a middle-class background who made money by exploiting men’s sexual urges. Bonny was underage when she got into the porn industry. 

“I think Bonny, at a very, very early age, as a child, became a lost soul. And she told me that,” Blake told Barbara Walters in 2003. “When she was 10 years old she was already doing stuff with men.”

Larry Hackett, an ABC News contributor, said that Bonny started taking nude photos when she was eleven. “She was underage [and] people were taking photos of her and selling them,” Hackett said.

Bonny tried to gain fame through singing, but she was woefully poor at it. Determined to gain fame and fortune, she resorted to conning men. “She decided to put ads in swinger magazines,” Hackett said. 

She then asked the unfortunate men who responded to the ads for rent money or travel fare. Bonny would earn hundreds of dollars from each transaction before the men sussed out the con.

Bonny married ten times, including to an immigrant named Evangelos Paulakis. Evangelos paid Bonny to marry him to guarantee his stay in the US. Bonny agreed, took the money, and ended the marriage, leading to Paulakis’ deportation.

Bakley was sentenced to three years’ probation for possessing false identification. After learning about Bonny’s shady past, Blake prohibited her from conducting her business on his property. 

Many people scorned Bakley, and some believe that someone intent on revenge killed her. Gerald opined that her former lover, Christian Brando, may have organized her murder. “Not on my behalf, but you’re lucky somebody ain’t out there to put a bullet in your head,” Brando said in a taped phone call.

 “I believe it was somebody who did it either at the direction of, or in order to curry favor with, Christian Brando,” Gerald said. 

Bonny’s daughter said she’d yet to discuss the murder with her father, Robert

Bonny got pregnant with Blake’s daughter shortly after meeting him. Bakley initially claimed she didn’t know whether Robert or Brando fathered the baby, but she named her Christian Shannon Brando. 

A DNA test proved that Blake was the father, forcing her to change the child’s name to Rose Lenore Sophia Blake. Attorney Harland Braun affirmed that Blake married Bonny solely because of Lenore. 

Rose Lenore Sophia Blake and her mother Bonny Lee Bakley

“It wasn’t a loving relationship,” Braun told People. “He married her because she’s the mother of his daughter.” After the ceremony, the couple set up in different houses, with Bonny and Sophia staying in a bungalow behind Blake’s house. 

Bonny didn’t spend much time with Sophia, but her other daughter (Bonny had three other children from past relationships), Holly Gawron, said she was an excellent mom. “She was my best friend,” Holly said. “She supported me in anything I wanted to do.”

After Robert’s arrest, his older daughter legally adopted Lenore. Sophia lived away from her father but couldn’t escape the aftermath of her mom’s murder. Lenore told Good Morning America:

“I felt a bit like there were two parts of me. One of them is, you know, trying to kind of recover from what happened when I was young and trying to sort through the complicated family that I have. And then one of them is just a normal teenage girl.”

Eighteen years after the murder, Lenore decided to face it head-on: she reached out to Blake and visited her mother’s grave for the first time. Lenore said she and Blake talked about her childhood memories and life growing up. 

However, she specifically asked her father not to talk about the killing and subsequent trial. She’s open to knowing the truth, but she wasn’t ready to discuss the crime at the time. Lenore said:

“I just kind of told him that I am not really there yet. I don’t want to know the answers yet. I feel like anyone would want to know the answer … I think I’ve gone 19 years not knowing. If all of a sudden I knew whether or not he killed her, that would be shocking.”